Why Does "This Is Us" Kick My Ass So Easily?

MCMFriday, February 12, 2021

Just about everyone watches the NBC show This Is Us, and our family is no different. Well, no, Kid 2 stopped watching it after Randall fell from his pedestal, but still, you get the point. Everyone in the family watches it for different reasons, but for me, I've been obsessing about how this show manages to push the emotion buttons so completely so often.

I mean, even Kate — and god, I strongly dislike Kate and her vaguely self-righteous self-destructiveness — manages to star in episodes where I find myself tearing up near the end (right on schedule) because the writers have somehow crafted the perfect story — again! — to make me care about whatever it is they're doing in this 44-minute slice of life.

From a writery POV, I think this somehow relates to promises, and how they layer those promises into the story. I'm kinda spitballing here, but this is how I think it works...

Making a Promise

Formulaic stories use promises a lot. And when I say "formulaic", I don't mean it in the bad way you probably assume — formulas are what makes drama happen. Our brains are wired to detect patterns, so when we see things we recognize, — even just subconsciously — we also start to anticipate the next step in the process. Chekhov's gun is a good example: you see a gun on the mantle and your brain knows that must mean something, so you expect it will go off sometime soon.

If you look at a sitcom, or a preschool show, or something where formula rules the day, you'll see the same kind of structure: the writer presents a problem with an obvious solution — protagonist wants X, but can't/won't achieve it because they refuse to do Y. If they just got over their problem with Y, they'd get X right away... but the journey to accepting Y is the purpose of the story.

As far as I can tell, This Is Us is just really damn good at making promises. They set up a problem at the start of the episode — Randall being bottled up about his birth mother, or Kevin deciding what to do about Madison, or Kate... ugh, I dunno, Kate looking for something that will cause her unhappiness—

(I love Chrissy Metz and how she plays Kate, I just strongly dislike Kate's tendency to blow up her own happiness over and over again)

—and once the show establishes what those issues will be, we know the general shape of what the payoff will be: Randall will vent his pain. We don't know how, exactly, or exactly why, but we know it's coming, even if Randall doesn't.

Theme of the Week

The big chunk of story in the middle is about weaving in subplots that all related, thematically, to the purpose at hand. What this show does brilliantly is that it lets those subplots tie tightly into the main character's life: 40s Randall is struggling as we see teenage Randall struggling, too.

Even if the two threads feel independent — or even if, say, the flashbacks are about Kevin and not Randall at all — they're working their way toward that moment where Jack, in a flashback, will sit someone down and tell them the nugget of wisdom needed to solve the main storyline's problem. They'll say it outright, out loud, for the audience to hear, so that promise you think you felt at the very start of the episode is suddenly explicit. Now it's real. It's tangible. It's like Jack said: "And there's a gun on the mantle, and it's gotta go off sometime, you know."

The Payoff

And with all that behind us, we're finally ready for the Mega-Catharsis. Again, it's about patterns: I know Randall has a problem, I know, vaguely, what he has to do to solve it, and I see him resisting it for 30-some minutes until a flashback lays it out for me. My brain knows Randall needs to accept the flashback truth before the 44 minutes are up, so he's gotta get moving. I start to get impatient, because Randall seems to be moving in the wrong direction, until — oh!

The promise is kept. Randall swims into the lake and screams, and suddenly I'm feeling emotional, because I was brought on a journey through Randall's baggage, and I'm just so relieved that he finally saw the truth I recognized all along. I'm so happy for him, finally catching up to where I've been for 35 minutes, that I tear up.

And then I get really damn angry that they tricked me again.

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